Canadian youth dismiss racist, sexist comments online as jokes: report

While the majority of Canadian students think that racist and sexist online comments are wrong, many dismiss the comments as jokes, according to a new national survey. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

TORONTO – While the majority of Canadian students think that racist and sexist online comments are wrong, many dismiss the comments as jokes, according to a new national survey.

MediaSmarts – a non-profit charitable organization focusing on digital and media literacy – released a report on Thursday about how often Canadian students in grades seven through 11 encounter racist and sexist content online. The report also explored how students respond when they see this content.

After surveying over 5,000 students across Canada, the report found that over three quarters of students (78 per cent) said they have come across racist or sexist content online.

The report points out that the racist tweets following Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban’s winning goal during the NHL playoffs is a reminder that discrimination continues to “dog our online interactions.”

While both the Canadiens and Boston Bruins condemned the racist attacks from so-called Bruins fans, the incident is a reminder that with social media, offensive content can have a wide reach, across a range of platforms.

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“Networked technologies provide a potentially global platform for all sorts of communications, including hateful ones,” reads the report.

Someone should say something, but it’s not going to be me

While 78 per cent said that it’s important to speak up about this content so people know it’s wrong and 69 per cent said they believe people use racist and sexist language to pick on people, students have many reasons why they keep their mouths shut.

Nearly half (47 per cent) agreed that it’s important to tell an adult when they see racist or sexist content online, but the reasons why they don’t say anything vary:

  • Over half (57 per cent) don’t say anything because they think the people saying hurtful things are just joking around
  • Fifty-two per cent agree that people who say racist and sexist things do not mean to hurt anyone
  • Almost half (45 per cent) agree that the comments are wrong, but it’s not their place to say anything
  • And 44 per cent don’t speak up because they believe that friends who use this language with each other don’t mean anything by it

How to deal with racist and sexist content online

According to survey data, older students are less likely to speak up and challenge racist or sexist comments. Younger students feel more strongly that the online content should be reported to an adult, with 68 per cent of Grade 7 students agreeing compared to only 26 per cent of Grade 11 students.

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“Older students are less likely to feel that it is their place to say something to challenge the comments,” reads the report.

The authors suggest that education programs that help students respond to offensive comments in a productive way would be useful, “especially for older students who are less inclined to speak out.”

The survey also found that girls are more likely to be concerned about racist or sexist comments compared to boys who are more likely to see the comments as harmless.

Boys are three times as likely to be mean or cruel online by making fun of someone’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation or harassing them sexually compared to girls.

This suggests, according to the report authors, that any successful educational intervention to counteract harmful behaviour online will have to take into account gender differences.

Teachers and parents seem to be powerful figures when it comes to teaching students about offensive online content.

When it comes to dealing with racist, sexist or hateful content online, 76 per cent of students report they have learned about coping strategies mostly from their parents and teachers.

Twenty-one per cent said they learned about strategies from their friends, and 17 per cent from online sources.

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As with any self-reported data, the study authors caution that answers provided by the students might not be entirely reliable, as they may be a reflection of what the students wanted people to think, rather than a reflection of their actual behaviour.

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